Why India's nuclear missile tests are giving sleepless nights to China

The underlying reason for Beijing's discomfort is New Delhi's attempts at seeking strategic equivalence with it.

 |  6-minute read |   11-01-2017
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Two back-to-back Agni IV and Agni V missile tests with ranges of 3,500-5,000km have rattled China, particularly the growing prowess of the India's Inter Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) development programme.

Reacting to the Indian missile tests, Global Times, the English language mouthpiece of China's Communist Party, gratuitously advised "India to cool its missile fever".

It further went on to chastise India for attempting to develop an intercontinental missile capability, adding that owning a few missiles does not mean India has become a nuclear power, and that "it will be a long time before it can show off its strength to the world".

The underlying reason for the Chinese outburst is Indian attempts at seeking strategic equivalence with China, through its intercontinental missile development programme that can pose a threat to China as also upset the existing strategic balance in Asia.

Obviously stung by the development, Global Times went on to rant about maintaining a strategic balance in South Asia by helping Pakistan to develop missiles of similar or longer ranges, acknowledging in effect China's support to Pakistan's nuclear programme, something the world has known for long but is rarely acknowledged by China.

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Even so, China does not see India as a serious security threat. Photo: PTI

It is important for India to take note of the Chinese stand and understand what drives this ire all the more, as China does not see India as a security threat owing to the existing capability (especially technology) gap and India's perceived no-war orientation.

The likely reason is that China has begun to see developing Indian capabilities and intentions from a multi-dimensional scenario of security challenges that India could pose over the midterm.

First among these is the enhancement of India's conventional capability, which China believes can have a direct impact on the situation in Tibet and over the boundary dispute.

Second, China looks upon India's strategic relations in the Asia-Pacific region, particularly the growing India-US and India-Japan strategic partnerships and the convergence of maritime democracies as a part of a process for China's strategic containment.

On India's nuclear capabilities, Chinese steadfast stand has been that India is not an internationally recognised nuclear-weapons state under the terms of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and therefore its capability to produce nuclear weapons does not accord it international recognition as a nuclear-armed state.

Notwithstanding this Chinese discourse, India's status as an unofficial nuclear-armed state is beginning to rankle due to its growing role as an emerging power and the changing geopolitics of the Asia-Pacific region as a whole.

From a geopolitical point of view, the Chinese look at India as an aspiring economic and nuclear power, which is being supported by important western powers (allusion to the India - US nuclear deal) whose existence outside the NPT regime will marginalise the existing international nuclear regime.

The nuance of this thinking is that India is being set up as China's nuclear rival with the support of the US-led alliance system.

Further, if the above situation continues, it will lead to reduced power asymmetry between India and China, upsetting the prevailing strategic balance in Asia.

Given the substantial tensions concerning the unresolved Sino-Indian border dispute, as well as the growing salience of the "Pakistan factor" in Sino-Indian security relations, China's perception of India as a nuclear-armed power is important not only for the future evolution of the international nuclear regime, but also for future Sino-Indian security relations.

Chinese experts acknowledge that India is worried about a two-front threat from Pakistan and China. They aver that India's security concerns are mainly related to Pakistan; particularly on account of the latter's offensive nuclear doctrine and pretensions to leverage tactical nuclear weapons to prevent India from using its superior conventional military force.

These concerns also extend to the close-security cooperation between Pakistan and China. Given such concerns, in the Chinese perspective, Indian nuclear weapons are seen as the "lowest-cost" way to solve its conventional balance problems and to enhance its strategic posture.

Therefore, from the Chinese strategic perspective, threats from China and Pakistan, especially from nuclear weapons, have become the greatest excuse for India to legitimise its nuclear weapon development programme.

However, as mentioned earlier, China does not see India as a serious security threat.

Its belief is centred on the fact that even if the number of missiles that India can target on China increases, it can still handle the threat given its technological edge and the dispersed deployment of its nuclear weapons.

Interestingly, the Indian nuclear threat is only seen in counter force terms and not in counter city or value terms, perhaps because of the limited range of the Indian missile systems or probable high-destructive costs of Chinese retaliation.

Further, in terms of intentions, China does not think that India seriously intends to go to war - either nuclear or conventional.

This assessment is based on India's strategic culture as also the consequences, both political and economic. China assumes that India would be more cautious, and would not undertake any provocative action that might lead to war with China.

In short, China judges India's capability by looking at the pace of development and the relative gap that exists between India and China in conventional and nuclear capabilities and technologies.

China's perception of India's intentions is equally anchored in the assumption that India and China would never get involved in a full-scale war, whether conventional or nuclear, as it will be both destructive and economically devastating.

It is this belief of the Chinese leadership that the back-to-back Indian intermediate and intercontinental missile tests have sought to undermine by signalling a push for strategic nuclear parity with China.

Many in China believe that India's programmes to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile and a strategic nuclear triad, and future MIRV capability have moved beyond the requirements of minimum deterrence with the potential to upset the existing balance of power.

Thus far, the strategic balance including extended deterrence was part of Sino-US strategic dynamics and the sole focus of the Chinese strategic nuclear capability.

With the Indian interloper coming appearing in the scene and changing strategic relationships, China, in future, will face twin nuclear threats - forcing it to factor in Indian nuclear capability, in what is a sort of mirror image of India-Pakistan equations.

More importantly, India's long-range missile capability that can cover most of Asia-Pacific will have a deep impact on regional strategic balance, and, in a sense, challenges Chinese nuclear autonomy in Asia.

In the future, India could also consider providing extended deterrence to regional powers in Asia as the US does for Japan.

These are some of the considerations that may have crossed the minds of the prescient Chinese provoking such a fierce reaction.

India will need to be conscious of Chinese sensibilities in the emerging nuclear equations, and China too will need to come down from its high horse and initiate a bilateral nuclear confidence-building dialogue.

Holding it hostage to India's non-membership of the NPT will not take away the reality.

The sooner China sheds its pretentious behaviour with respect to the NSG, stops blocking India's membership and initiates bilateral or even trilateral dialogue on nuclear security in Asia, the better for Southeast Asia's security. The ball is squarely in China's court.

Watch: India launches nuclear-capable Agni V

Writer

Arun Sahgal Arun Sahgal @brigarunsahgal

Founder Director Net Assessment, Integrated Defence Staff, Ministry of Defence. Presently Senior Fellow Delhi Policy Group.

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